Climate Justice: Introduction and Commentary

Climate justice recognises the moral, socio-political and human rights factors as being central to addressing climate change. What is the connection between climate justice and psychology?

General Human Rights / Climate Change

Sound research over decades (see IPCC documents) shows that climate and environmental disruption have reached a critical point. The choices we make now, and have already made, will have tragic repercussions for this and generations to come, directly affecting their lives and their rights. Most ironically those who contributed least to this are now and will be most directly affected.

IPPC Report: Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5 ºC spelt out some societal changes required to meet targets set to limit the impact of climate disruption. These changes are closely connected with psychology (e.g., behaviour change and social relationships) and human rights. The changes required will only be acceptable if they are seen to be fair and respect everyone’s interests. One of the lead authors of the 1.5 report is Linda Steg, one of a growing band of psychologists working alongside climate scientists and human rights professionals who have been developing a strategy to respond to the emerging crisis.

Addressing climate change is compatible with addressing human rights
Human rights comprise internationally agreed norms that align with ambitions of poverty eradication, sustainable development, and the reduction of vulnerability (Caney, 2010; Fleurbaey et al., 2014; OHCHR, 2015). In addition to defining substantive rights (such as to life, health, and shelter) and procedural rights (such as to information and participation), human rights instruments prioritise the rights of marginalized groups, children, vulnerable and indigenous persons, and those discriminated against on grounds such as gender, race, age or disability (OHCHR, 2017).

Several international human rights obligations are relevant to the implementation of climate actions and consonant with UNFCCC undertakings in the areas of mitigation, adaptation, finance, and technology transfer (Knox, 2015; OHCHR, 2015; Humphreys, 2017)

Threats Against Environment Defenders

The United Nations Environment Programme considers enviornmental defenders as: “individuals and groups who, in their personal or professional capacity and in a peaceful manner, strive to protect and promote human rights relating to the environment”. Environmental defenders are critical to the climate justice struggles as they often contest unjust decisions or projects that will contribute to the climate emergency. Around the world, those on the frontlines of climate justice struggles are coming under threat.

Organisations, such as Global Witness and Asina Loyiko, challenge the abuse of power against land and environment defenders. Some of those who have come under direct threat have also been healthcare workers. If your are a psychologist and have come under direct threat, including litigation in relationship to your work around the climate and enviornmental crisis, please reach out.

Mental Health Professionals for Climate Justice

Psychologists and other mental healthcare professionals are accompanying people across the world that are engaged in human rights issues and climate justice struggles. Direct social action is critical to garner the political change needed and liberation theorists, such as the psychiatrist Frantz Fanon and psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró, saw direct actions across political spheres as being essential for psychological liberation and the assertion of human rights.

Psychology Groups

Today, there are multiple organisations providing psychosocial support for those working through their feelings to the climate emergency, and seeking a sense of psychosocial accompaniment. Some groups offering therapeutic spaces, education and avenues to take action are: XRPsychologists  Ecopsy (Portugal) Climate, Environment and Psychology Group (South Africa) Climate Psychology Alliance (UK) Climate Psychology North America Psychologists for the Future (please let us know if you would like to be added to this list of groups).

Climate Activism

Psychologists are putting themselves on the frontlines shouldering the risks with other climate activists. In an interview with Roger Paxton, former Chair of the British Psychological Society’s (2020) Ethics Committee, psychologist Rosie Jones, who was arrested in April 2019’s XR civil disobedience in the occupation of Waterloo Bridge in the UK stated that she considered her own positionality and found it necessary to use her privileges. As Jones describes: “I took my turn on Friday to be arrested. I simply sat on the bridge in the front row and when asked by police officers to move to the approved protest site, I did not.” These acts are understood as ethical obligations by psychologists and are being recognised as such by some statutory bodies. For instance, on 20 September 2021, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) responded to the Climate Psychology Alliance’s call for statutory regulators to support climate action, including civil disobedience. Their response was as follows: “BACP fully shares your concerns around the severity of the threat posed by climate change, alongside the urgent need to influence decision makers to address the climate emergency…If you decide to take part in a peaceful protest in support of climate change action, being arrested wouldn’t necessarily bring the profession into disrepute or lead to withdrawal of membership – any conviction would be looked at on a case-by-case basis”. However, there is still space that needs to be created across different psychological bodies to ensure that space is created for psychologists to engage in proportion to the magnitude of the climate emergency, including issues of justice.

Divestment Campaigns

Psychologists and other mental health professionals have been directing their efforts towards divestment campaigns and consumer boycotts. Divestment campaigns are strategic activities that motivate for and assist with getting rid of investments that contribute to climate change. Divestment campaigns also often encourage the reinvestment of finances and energies into renewables. International divestment campaigns and consumer boycotts (i.e., campaigns directed at consumers to stop buying products that contribute to human rights violations) have been used successfully in contributing to the liberation of South Africa from the apartheid regime, for instance. While psychology has not engaged in consumer boycotts, there is a growing divestment movement. For instance, “Psych Divest” (today, renamed #PsychDeclares) was one of the first divestment campaigns.

Climate Litigation and Mental Health

Photo: Chris De Beer-Proctor Youth-led #CancelCoal climate case launched against government’s plans for new coal-fired power

One of the main ways in which psychology intersects with the justice system is through the role of an expert witness. There are a growing number of climate litigation cases around the world where mental health expert affidavits and reports are being used to support climate justice ends. The following are two notable case:

Expert Report of Lise van Susteren, M.D. (2015) in the case of Juliana versus the United States of America

Expert Report of Garret Banwell, PhD (2021) in the case of the youth-based African Climate Alliance, the community-based Highveld group, the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action and groundWork, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights, against the Minister of Energy and the National Energy Regulator of South Africa.

Research and Advocacy

There is increasing evidence of the impacts that the climate emergency has on mental health and, only recently, these insights have been used in broader public advocacy. One notable example that warrants mentioning is the international polling study by Caroline Hickman et al (2021) that was recently published in the Lancet Climate psychology in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global surveyThe study demonstrated how children’s experiences of climate-related distress was associated with the sense of institutional betrayal (i.e., the experience of betrayal owing to governments’ wrongdoings in creating and responding to climate change). It is not only the findings that make this study notable, but also that it was a strategic partnership between the researchers and the campaigning organisation AVAAZ to bring into focus the impacts of government inaction that is driving psychological distress.


Summit on Psychology and Global Health: Climate Change – over 40 psychology associations signed the declaration of commitment to applying psychology to climate change.

Declaration of Ethical Principles in Relation to Climate Change (United Nations)